While sight fishing and stalking trout with a dry fly is the dream of most fly anglers, no technique in fly fishing is as interactive and engaging as streamer fishing. The high speed chess match the unravels while trying to trigger an impulsive strike from the largest predators in the river requires anglers to be both physically and mentally sharp at all times. Beginning anglers diving into streamers undergo long periods of trial and error to figure out which tools/streamers work best under different scenarios. The learning curve is steep as you typically see much fewer bites than with other techniques making positive reinforcement tougher to come by. In this article we will break down the where, when, and how of streamer fishing to help you along the learning curve.
The Best Streamers for Fly Fishing
Understanding streamers is essential in making the right fly selection on the water. When discussing streamers with most anglers, the first thing that will come to mind is the classic woolly bugger. One of the original streamer patterns, and the predecessor to modern patterns, it is far closer to a bug than the larger fly patterns we will discuss .While this fly is unquestionably effective, we will not be discussing it here as it is hard to fish wrong. Do note that all the methods we describe here will certainly be effective with the woolly bugger and its variations.
My fishing journey began in bass fishing where conventional tackle and lures have been far more versatile over the past few decades. Today the rapidly evolving streamer designs are now able to imitate some of these lures and their actions in order to elicit more strikes and provide anglers with more versatile tools. By understanding the action of these flies as well as what the trout are looking for, you can put yourself in a better position for success. We will break these streamers down into 3 categories: Jigging streamers, Swimming streamers, and Walking streamers.
These streamers will imitate more bottom dwelling prey such as sculpin, crayfish, or dying baitfish. While these can be fished with sinking lines to get down further in the water column, especially in deep water, fly anglers can achieve more control with a floating line when fishing in water less than 6-8' deep. With this floating line set up, anglers will need a much heavier and dense fly in order to fish more effectively. Flies such as the Headbanger Sculpin, Nancy P, Hogan's Creature, or Micro Crayfish perform excellent when being hopped off of the bottom and allowed to dive or flutter back down with a "Yoyo" technique. Much like the jigging/flutter spoons, lipless crankbaits, or skirted jigs in bass fishing, the flies will grab the trout's attention while being popped off of the bottom then attack these flies as the dive back to the bottom or toward cover. While some of these eats will be from feeding fish, anglers will also induce reaction strikes from lethargic and inactive trout.
Another tactic these flies excel in is imitating dying baitfish. Across many tailwaters in the southeastern United States, winter shad die offs occur during cold snaps in January and February. Places such as the White River see these nearly every year along with rivers in East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. Other rivers across the country can see winter or summer die offs of shiners, dace, or other small species. Over weighted clouser minnows can imitate smaller prey species while larger patterns incorporating fish skullz or larger conehead weights can keep flies down in the water. Smaller hops or deadsticking these flies can be as or more effective than hopping them higher off the bottom.
For those who tie their flies, keeping buoyant materials sparse in these patterns can be critical for their effectiveness. An overabundance of Rabbit fur or Marabou will keep these flies from reaching their highest potential.
In smaller streams and rivers anglers can also forego a floating line and use a modified mono rig, or euro rig set up to increase their control and effectiveness. So long as you are fishing within a 30' range, a mono or euro rig will allow you more contact with your jigging streamers as well as decreasing the pull of current on your line allowing you to probe deeper and maintain control of the action of your fly. This can be critical in faster waters where other lines hinder the flies drift and action. With both the mono rig and floating lines, I like to match my leader length to the average depth of pools/runs/troughs I will be fishing. On a 4 to 6' bottom, I will rig a 6' to 8' piece of leader material. For sinking lines I opt for shorter leaders to better gauge my depth of fly and achieve greater contact. 3-4' will typically suffice here.
Streamers such as the Game Changer, Double Deceiver, Dungeon variants, and Rag Dolly achieve a very fluid swimming motion in both still waters and in a river. These flies would be the bass fishing equivalent of a swimbait or possibly crankbait. They can imitate anything from sculpin, whitefish, medium sized forage fish, or juvenile trout. These appeal to larger trout's predatory senses by imitating weaker or unsuspecting prey. They work in all varieties of trout waters. Utilize current seams to bring these flies to life in both small streams and the largest rivers. Using floating lines allows for more control and the ability to change head direction which can be critical in inducing strikes from trailing fish. On larger or faster rivers, these streamers may need sinking lines to keep them down and in front of the fish. Here swinging the flies at a downstream angle is often the most effective tactic.
Materials such as marabou can bring these flies to life in slower water but add heavy bulk to the fly. Deer hair, craft fur, and schlappen feathers can add the illusion of bulk while being sparse allowing the flies to breath and pulsate in more turbulent currents. My leader length with these flies usually ranges in the 4-6' range depending on water clarity and the depth I am looking to get to. Leaders will need to be shorter the deeper you go.
These streamers are most comparable to jerkbaits in the bass fishing world. Their ability to achieve extremely erratic motion entices aggressive strikes from both hungry and inactive trout by imitating injured prey. Fly patterns such as the Drunk and Disorderly, Hollow Point, and Sid use their head shapes and streamlined body design to best allow the streamer to sashay in the water on shorter choppy strips. These are big water streamers excellent at targeting any predatory species. From trophy brown trout here in the U.S. to the Taimen of Europe and Asia, these flies mesmerize both fish and angler.
Longer leaders (around 8') on sinking lines typically provide the best results for these flies. Much like the swimming flies, it is the change in head direction that triggers most strikes. Long casts and "walking the dog" will be the best method with these streamers.
Where to Fish Streamers for Trout
Understanding what streamer types are more effective in different pieces of water will bring more fish to the net. We can split these areas up into larger rivers and smaller rivers and creeks.
Streamer Fishing Small Rivers and Creeks
Deeper pools and narrow runs on smaller rivers and creeks are perfect for the jigging style streamers. Current slots where less dense flies are incapable of getting down are another good area to probe with the yoyo technique. Probing deeper eddies with jigging streamers can also find fish more reluctant to move up and eat streamers riding higher in the water column.
Dense cover on small streams and rivers are perfect for swimming streamers. Easier to control, they can be cast close to cover and maneuvered around potential hang ups with ease, all while tantalizing hungry trout nearby. Log jams, undercut banks, and chunk rock boulders are a great place for larger brown trout to ambush unsuspecting prey.
Tailouts are another excellent place to find hungry predators lurking and willing to fall victim to an easy meal. Especially during periods of high water, they can slide back into these relatively shallow areas where they now have the stalking advantage on their prey. Don't let the faster water deter you from fishing these areas. If it is feeding time, they will use these faster currents to their advantage. Swimming flies are more effective in these situations, though jigging flies can be swung downstream in these tailouts as well.
Streamer Fishing Larger Rivers
When fly fishing larger rivers with big streamers, it is hard to overlook the walking style streamers. Whether navigating around cover, fishing long current seams, or swinging wide tailouts, the action of these flies can move predatory trout in many circumstances. Covering large amounts of water is often key here and these flies are the best at efficiently moving trout in all water types on big water. When trout are looking for bigger meals in situations with heavier or off colored water, the swimming flies can also effective but when the water clears or conditions become tough they don't quite have the action or pull power of the walking flies.
Niche pieces of water can be probed with the jigging streamers but there effectiveness can vary from river to river with how trout like to set up and their prominent forage base.
When to Use Streamers for Trout
Streamers can be effective anytime of year. However there are certain situations where they thrive or become the go to. The most obvious time are when streams are high and stained. Whether it be from snow melt runoff or recent rains, trout will move toward the banks and out of the main current in these situations, looking for an easy meal. Dry flies and nymphs are also not viable options at these times as visibility is limited. Finding current breaks and cover during these periods will often lead to more bites. Don't let fair weather streamer fishing in high or stained water be the only time you reach for these flies. Spring sucker and shiner spawns can put predators on the prowl as well as periods where smaller trout, grayling, whitefish may be feeding with abandon during a hatch in the early morning or evening hours.
Low, clear water can be the most difficult times to catch trout on streamers. Late summer and fall typically see much of this feeding move to the late night hours. Another good opportunity can be found in late summer or early fall as brown trout begin their fall migrations to their spawning gravel bars. This migration is often triggered by rains and higher waters here in the southeast. Browns will stage in deeper areas as the move upstream toward their spawning flats. Here they may be more willing than other times of the year to take advantage of an easy meal.
Hopefully these tips and techniques helped you better understand some of the more advanced methods in modern streamer fishing. Be sure to follow us on Facebook or Instagram to stay up to date on our latest tips and techniques articles as well as fishing reports that will help you grow on your fly angling journey.
For similar articles, check out our pages on What Do Trout Eat, The Best Caddis Fly Patterns, The Best Stonefly Patterns, and The Best Mayfly Fly Patterns. Soon, we will incorporate more videos into this article in the near future for a more visual experience. Check out more of our articles on fly fishing tips and techniques here as well as our many articles on Fly Fishing North Georgia.